Parks Canada is preparing to go to the public with plans for a $66-million, 107-kilometre bike trail adjacent to the Jasper-Banff highway — one of the country's most scenic drives.
But five environmental groups are already wary of the idea, fearing the project will damage crucial habitat and divert resources from conserving nature.
"Recent budget announcements have allocated far more to infrastructure than to ecological protection and species-at-risk protection," said Andrea Johancsik of the Alberta Wilderness Association. "We're concerned about the amount of commercial development in the parks and this could perhaps contribute."
The highway runs past glaciers, icefields, cerulean lakes and jagged peaks and connects two national parks and is considered a classic — and highly popular — tour for both drivers and cyclists.
Money for some kind of cycling and walking trail in Jasper National Park was initially promised in the last federal budget. This week, Parks Canada shared some of the details of the plan with The Canadian Press.
The proposed trail would run for 107 kilometres from Jasper townsite to the Columbia Icefields. It would be separate from the current narrow, two-lane road, said Parks Canada spokesman Steve Young.
"You're not going to have an extra lane on what exists now. It's designed to be safer."
The trail could eventually stretch all the way to Lake Louise and link up with a current bike trail along the Trans-Canada Highway.
Young said the new trail will make use of an existing and now-abandoned roadbed as much as possible. Young acknowledged the new trail will require new asphalt, but the amount of land that would be paved isn't yet public.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has estimated the amount of paving needed for a trail all the way to Lake Louise would be the equivalent of 116 football fields. The environmental groups are concerned the trail would take up more of the valley between the row of peaks through which the highway currently runs.
Such habitat is rare in the rugged mountain parks and this valley is important to animals such as the tiny Brazeau caribou herd.
Parks Canada will hold a full public consultation, the details of which are expected shortly, Young said. An environmental assessment will also be conducted.
"We're going to do our best to ensure there's no net impact," he said. "We'll look at absolutely everything."
But environmentalists fear that since the money has already been set aside, the trail is a done deal.
"Details of the plan will only be available after the full supply bill is passed," says a letter from the association to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.
"(The association) is concerned that such a significant amount of taxpayer money has been allocated to a specific project without full and transparent public consultation that includes the result of a full needs assessment."
The trail plan is another example of what environmentalists say is increasing commercialization in national parks and a growing emphasis on providing tourist amenities rather than conservation. They point to the new, privately owned Glacier Skywalk at the Columbia Icefields, as well as canyoning in Jasper and a via ferrata — a protected climbing route — at Mount Norquay, near Banff.
"We like to see people enjoying nature responsibly, but we do recognize that the priority of national parks is ecological integrity," said Johancsik. "Perhaps this funding would be better spent on enhanced interpretive programs and services rather than providing additional access."
Parks Canada has been trying to find ways to widen its appeal beyond traditional parks visitors.
"Investments in visitor infrastructure such as trails and highways will continue to allow Canadians to connect with nature and stimulate the economy in communities across the country," Young said in an email.
"Developing new services and visitor offers, such as the Icefields trail, allows more Canadians, including youth and newcomers, to experience the outdoors and learn about our environment."